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Guidance needed! How do I spend the next year making my application more competitive to get into a good program?


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Hi all, 

I've been a long time lurker here but have made the definitive decision to apply for a PhD in Art History or Visual Studies. I'm applying for fall 2019 so I have a lot of time to prepare and I'm going to need it! I don't feel very confident about where I'm at right now and that's mainly because the schools I attended did not offer much (if any) guidance on surviving in the real world or how to continue along the path of academia. 

I have a BFA in Visual Art (3.8 GPA) from a CUNY college and an MA in Critical Theory and the Arts from SVA. I jumped into my MA kind of quickly and have been trying to live life in the "real world" ever since I completed my MA, which was 3 years ago. 

My question to you all is how do I spend the next year or so making my application more competitive? 

Here are my concerns:
 - Recommendations: I have one that is solid. I haven't kept in touch with my other teachers and it's been 3 years since I graduated so I'm wondering if I should try to get the other two recs elsewhere. 
 - The schools I've attended are not very high brow- not much I can do about this.
 - Between my BFA and MA, I've probably only taken 5 classes that are strictly art history related and not theory driven. 
 - The work I've been doing between graduating from my MA and now hasn't been related to the art world (I've been doing work like project manager, graphic design, admin assistant).

I've been gathering a list of things I can do to make my application look better based on my personal research online and came up with the following: 

- Gain research experience (How do I go about doing this?)
- Take an art history class and try to get a recommendation out of it
- Have some written work published
- Study for and try to get a high score on the GREs 

Is there anything I'm missing? Like I said before, the guidance I've received in the past has been very limited so I'd love some guidance from this forum as to how best to spend my time over the next year. 

Thank you! 
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I think the most important thing you can do now is write a super compelling personal statement and writing sample. There seems to be a misconception on these boards that "experience" carries a lot of weight in these decisions. From my experience, it doesn't. Committees care that you have good ideas and can express them well. If these things are lacking, all of the internships and publications (in what are usually very minor venues) and high GRE scores in the world will not do much good. Make sure your personal statement articulates a clear, cogent, and interesting research agenda. What questions are you interested in? Why are they important? How do you fit in with the field? Similarly, your writing sample should exhibit clear, elegant writing, rigorous research, and original thinking grounded in a firm understanding of the field. These things are the best indicators of potential, and that is what committees are most interested in. I would also recommend you reconnect with your recommenders asap, both to discuss your applications and to jog their memories for their letters.

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Bronte1985's is spot on. Only, I would echo the need to reconnect with recommenders - if you are still near them, there is a chance they might have an opportunity for you to participate in a project, which would build your CV. Likewise, I would look at volunteer opportunities at a local museum or school. Again, as Bronte notes, this is not going to be a determining factor in your acceptance, unlike a strong SOP and WS, but joining in the community in such a way would provide you with "real life" environments (although, don't bank on getting paid) and showcase your enthusiasm in contributing to the community in which your field is apart of. 

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I totally agree with everything that was said so far. This isn't so much an "action" as some of the other suggestions, but I would also recommend taking some time to think about the best way to describe the few years you took off before applying. One of the best pieces of advice I got from my MA committee chair was to consider how the work I did after my MA might be part of a continuum for me in my path toward a PhD, and then to try to frame that trajectory in my SoP. I spent a few years working as a database administrator/evaluation and planning manager outside the art world at a non-profit (though, to be fair, my research is connected culturally to the mission of the organization), and it was actually kind of eye-opening to connect work I originally felt was only tangentially-related in a way that was meaningful. This may not be the case for you (maybe you just needed a job in between! I kind of did, too).  BUT, if it's possible, I think it's important to lay out the last several years as a series of conscious choices toward the career you want.

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